California wide receiver Keenan Allen, left, is chased by Washington linebacker… (Elaine Thompson / Associated…)
SAN FRANCISCO — Robert Woods spent the last two weeks immersed in studying the tendencies of California's defensive backs.
In a switch from the norm, USC's star receiver also kept an eye on the Golden Bears offense, specifically Cal receiver Keenan Allen.
The sophomores are perhaps the top players at their position in the Pacific 12 Conference.
"There's always competition," Woods said. "You're trying to put up better numbers than he's putting up. He's a great player."
Woods is tied for first nationally in receptions per game. Allen is 11th.
Woods is second in total receiving yards, Allen sixth.
The receivers will be showcasing their multidimensional skills, and perhaps engage in one-upmanship, on Thursday night when USC plays Cal at AT&T Park.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound Woods burst onto the national scene as a freshman and has been the focus of USC's offense this season, starting with a record 17-catch performance against Minnesota and hardly slowing down since.
Woods has 55 receptions in five games and has scored six touchdowns. Two weeks ago against Arizona, he took a short pass from quarterback Matt Barkley and slipped several tacklers on his way to an 82-yard touchdown.
He is averaging 11 receptions a game.
"If you have a great tailback, you turn and hand him the ball 25 times a game," Coach Lane Kiffin said. "If you have a great receiver, the last thing we want to do is come out of a game and the guy has touched the ball four or five times. So we just try to find ways to get him the ball and keep feeding him."
Cal has tried to do the same with Allen, who has 39 receptions, four for touchdowns.
The North Carolina native reportedly committed to Alabama after a stellar high school career, but he headed west when the Crimson Tide did not offer a scholarship to his half-brother, quarterback Zach Maynard, whose biological father raised both boys.
Maynard, the starting quarterback at Buffalo in 2009, redshirted last season and is now Cal's starter.
At 6-3, 195 pounds, Allen is bigger than Woods. He has averaged 17.1 yards a catch, Woods 13.6.
Against Arizona, in a 48-41 victory, USC gave up wide swaths of yardage for fear of getting beat deep by Juron Criner and other receivers.
Now comes Allen.
"He's fast, he's big, he's strong and he's a possession receiver and deep receiver," Kiffin said. "Unfortunately for us, we have another guy we've got to really focus on."
The Golden Bears also have another option.
Senior Marvin Jones, a former standout at Etiwanda High, has caught 29 passes, three for touchdowns.
Meantime, USC has quickly developed a complement to Woods.
Freshman Marqise Lee, Woods' former teammate at Gardena Serra High, has caught 21 passes, including three for touchdowns.
"I feel that we're one of the top [duos]," Lee said. "I don't want to say the best because I don't want to be cocky or anything."
The last time Cal faced Woods he was coming off a breakout game against Stanford. He stayed hot against the Golden Bears, catching two of Barkley's five touchdowns passes in the first half as the Trojans won, 48-14.
"He didn't look like a freshman in those games anymore," Kiffin said.
Neither did Allen, who caught four passes against the Trojans, including one for a touchdown.
Receivers for both teams could be in for productive games Thursday because both secondaries rank among the lower tier nationally in pass defense -- Cal is 74th, USC 98th among 120 major-college teams -- and both are depleted by injuries.
Cal cornerback Marc Anthony suffered an arm injury last Thursday against Oregon, leaving freshman Stefan McClure to start against the Trojans and attempt to handle Woods.
"You can't play his reputation," McClure told the Contra Costa Times. "You just have to be ready."
USC cornerback Torin Harris was sidelined against Arizona because of a shoulder injury and could not participate in a full practice this week. That means freshman Anthony Brown might start for the second game in a row.
"We haven't done real well in shutting guys down," Kiffin said. "There was a big focus this week at playing better in coverage, getting a better rush and trying to shut somebody down."
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX
California's Keenan Allen and USC's Robert Woods -- both sophomore wide receivers -- lead the Pac-12 in
receiving and rank among the top six in the NCAA for receiving yards per game.
133.6 -- RECEIVING YDS PER GAME
NCAA rank: 6th
149.4 -- RECEIVING YDS PER GAME
NCAA rank: 2nd